Underage Prostitution in New York City

Would you happen to know a teenage girl? Does she reside in New York City? African-American or Hispanic? Chances are she could be one of about 2,200 victims of commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in New York City every year. I recently watched a film that made me take a closer look.

Very Young Girls (2007) documents the lives of underage prostitutes, as young as 12, residing in New York City. Looking for a "daddy" or someone to "love" them, these very young callgirls turned to pimps, who coerced them into this lifestyle, often referred to in the film as "the game." Dependency on the pimps for approval and support -- financial and emotional -- led these troubled adolescent girls to develop emotional ties, making it hard to break away for good.

Some of the footage used in Very Young Girls came from pimps who recorded themselves in action, in hopes of landing a reality show. Talk about aspirations! Well, that (not so wise) move led both men to be sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for commercial sexual exploitation of underage girls. Whereas, law enforcement officials advised a room full of johns to stay out of trouble for six months in exchange for a clear record.

In the film, a mother received an anonymous tip that a pimp kidnapped her daughter. The tipster provided the pimp's address and other identifying details. The worried mom took the information to the 81st Precinct in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where the police turned her away. This particular precinct is notorious for underreporting crime in the area. I digress.

A prostitute's unhealthy way of life entails all sorts of abuse -- rape, beatings, and drugs -- and, in some cases, jail. Rachel Lloyd's organization Girls Educational and Mentoring Services provides support services, including alternatives to incarceration, for young females in New York who want out of this destructive lifestyle. With a focus on promoting self-love and sisterhood, GEMS offers shelters and mentors to help victims start over.

GEMS, in partnership with African Diaspora media outreach group United Nile, will host an upcoming call-to-action event From Playgrounds to Pimps, featuring a poetry reading by 13-year-old scholar Autum Ashante, a screening of Very Young Girls, followed by a panel discussion with experts, activists (including myself), and young women affected by the taboo issue. This event will be held on Thursday, March 24, at 7 p.m. at The Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, located in the Washington Heights section of New York City.

For more information on how you can help raise awareness surrounding this human rights issue, host a screening or fundraiser, or make donations, please visit www.gems-girls.org.